Lots in Store

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Where can you find rhinestone flip-flops to match your cocktail dress, a new look for the living room and that chocolate body paint you've been secretly longing to try?

Bethesda offers all this -- and more. The suburb just above Northwest Washington has become one of the hottest shopping spots in Maryland.

While Bethesda has always prided itself on its restaurants, it also has an impressive array of home furnishings and clothing stores. Yet the real appeal is the personality of the place, which has maintained its own local flair in spite of an influx of popular national franchises including Barnes & Noble, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Houston's, Fitigues, Aveda and many more.

Where to start: You'll find that the 4800 block of Bethesda Avenue, referred to by the locals as "Bethesda Row," is a good starting point. Simply turn the corner onto Woodmont Avenue, where there is a fountain in front of the Barnes & Noble, and you'll find another great stretch of shops. Don't be shy about asking the shopkeepers where else they would recommend. Some of our best finds came that way.

Bethesda lunch-break

There's no shortage of good food in Bethesda. Here were our lunch-break winners:

* Bethesda Bagels

4819 Bethesda Ave.,

301-652-8990

For the best bagels and bagel sandwiches around, this is the spot. Find a shady bench outside to eat because Bethesda Bagels is carryout only.

* Black's Bar and Kitchen

7750 Woodmont Ave.

301-652-6278

If you want a glass of chardonnay with your meal, visit Black's. Although "Southwest American Cuisine With a Gulf Coast Influence" sounds daunting for lunch, you'll love dining on fresh seafood on their outdoor patio.

* Cameron's Seafood Market

4831 Bethesda Ave.

301-951-1000

Those who miss their Baltimore crab cakes should stop into Cameron's. This neighborhood restaurant is relatively inexpensive, and you can get in and out in a hurry -- a real plus when shopping.

* Centro

4838 Bethesda Ave.

301-951-1988

In the summer, this Italian bistro opens its front walls to give it an open-air feel. With good service and great pasta, this chic restaurant is one of the best options if you want to treat yourself.

* Tastee Diner

7731 Woodmont Ave.

301-652-3970

It feels as though four people could barely fit into this space, but if you're looking for a burger and a chocolate shake or breakfast served all day, this tried-and-true diner is the place for you.

1. Urban Country

7801 Woodmont Ave.

301-654-0500

This two-story shop is bursting at the seams with everything from antique and reproduction furniture and MacKenzie-Childs teapots and lamps to the latest bath and body products and chocolate body paint.

"If someone wants to come in and spend $10, they can," explains owner Rachelle Roth, "or they can spend $8,000 on a sofa." Urban Country also has a great selection of decorative pillows and picture frames, and a huge collection of throws. The store offers full interior-design services as well as a bridal registry.

Not to be missed: The "Hall of Mirrors" leading up to the store's second floor.

2. Bettina's

7232 Woodmont Ave.

301-656-0002

This upscale boutique has everything from T-shirts and jeans to eveningwear. You will love browsing through the colorful dresses and separates that line this slim, stylish space. Owner Bettina Ratner (pictured top, right) carries a number of chic lines, including Tark, Tocca and Jenne Maag. Tark's pants, in every color under the sun and in the trendy python print ($275), are a favorite. One of our must-haves was Lotta's bubble-gum pink flip-flops with rhinestone straps ($45). Flash that pedicure.

Not to be missed: Free alterations. As Ratner jokes: "Men always get them [free], but not women."

3. Muleh Home Furnishings

4731 Elm St.

301-941-1174

A newcomer to Bethesda, Muleh prides itself on its "cross-cultural interiors." The store carries both Southeast Asian and European furniture and demonstrates a remarkable harmony of the two in its eclectic space. Owner Christopher Reiter, originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, says that many people feel that Asian furniture is too ornate for their western-style homes. His goal with Muleh is to prove that the two "are not so diametrically opposed" and can actually work together.

Not to be missed: A platform bed made of recycled teak wood from planks of actual homes in Java ($1,975).

4. Pirjo

4821 Bethesda Ave.

301-986-1870

This eclectic shop caters to women who want to add a European flair to their wardrobe or home. Along with clothing and jewelry, this long, narrow space houses pottery and glassware. Owner Pirjo Jaffe, who also has a store in Georgetown, moved her Washington shop to Bethesda because "a lot of customers [were coming] from this area to downtown."

Pirjo has an older, more sophisticated appeal, and although it does have casual wear, you'll be most attracted to its refined blouses, slacks and suits, and the great jewelry to match.

Not to be missed: Lilith separates, which are great for layering.

5. Sansar

4805 Bethesda Ave.

301-652-8676

This American crafts gallery specializes in wood furniture, housewares and gifts, although it does carry glass, ceramics, metals and textiles as well. You'll find beautiful handmade jewelry in this colorful shop, which is situated in the heart of Bethesda Row. Although not all of the furniture, which runs the gamut from tiny side tables to beds, can fit in this small store, in-store portfolios make it easy to select a piece that Sansar can then order.

Not to be missed: Wood turnings. These sculptures and bowls ($300-$4,500) are created using a lathe, the wood industry's equivalent of a potter's wheel.

6. Mustard Seed

7349 Wisconsin Ave.

301-907-4699

"For nine years we were street vendors," explains Derek Kennedy, part owner of Mustard Seed, a stylish new- and used-clothing shop on Wisconsin Avenue. Used -- "brand-name casual" as Kennedy calls them -- clothes, with such labels as Abercrombie & Fitch, Contempo, Gap, J.Crew, Steve Madden and Nine & Co., make up 60 percent of business.

As for new apparel, the store is jampacked with the latest backless tops, snakeskin-, cheetah- and zebra-print pants, jewelry and a variety of colorful handbags.

Not to be missed: An impressive collection of Levi's 501 jeans.

To get there

Take 95 South to 495 West. Exit south on Wisconsin Avenue and follow it for about two miles. Make a right onto Bethesda Avenue. Bethesda Row is right there. Parking can be challenging, so bring a handful of quarters.

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